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“Why were you having a meeting about me?”

Althea touched my cheek with her warm palm and smiled with maternal affection. “You don’t worry about anything, you hear me? We’ve got it all taken care of.”

“What? You’ve got what taken care of?”

“How to keep this place going. There aren’t a lot of us, but we depend on the Juniper. We’re working together.”

“But why were you talking about me?”

“Because you’re part of it, baby.”

“But . . . Mama said you didn’t think I should stay.”

“I don’t,” she said, fidgeting with her dress again. “But I was outvoted. Now it’s my job to make sure you’re happy here.”

I smiled at her. “Isn’t that my job?”

Althea’s eyes filled with happy tears, and she kissed my cheek. “My goodness. Look what you’ve gone and done.” She dug into her pocket and pulled out a tissue. She leaned in, touching my knee. “You go to that game, and you show those girls they can’t run you off. Elliott’s a good boy. He’ll take care of you.”

“He says he loves me.”

“Loves you?” She blew out a breath through her lips. “Well, what’s not to love?”

I sat on the bed, watching Althea gather herself. She walked over to my dresser and picked up the music box, giving it a few turns before waving to me and closing the door behind her. I lay back, looking up at the ceiling, letting my eyes grow heavy to the familiar chime.

Chapter Twenty

Catherine

Madison had only been driving forty-five minutes before the sun began to set. Sleet had been forecast for the way home, but fifteen minutes from Oklahoma City, tiny balls of white began to plink against the windshield.

“Don’t worry,” Madison said. “My dad made me pack an entire arsenal of winter survival gear in the back.”

“Is this really your first time driving to a game out of town?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said sheepishly. “I usually drive with my parents, but now that I have you to come with me . . .”

I smiled. It felt nice to be wanted.

“Thanks for inviting me. I didn’t know I wanted to go.”

She shrugged, keeping her eyes on the road. “You work a lot. You have more responsibilities than most of us. I’ll just remind you now and then. I mean, if that’s okay. I don’t know, you might not even like me.”

I chuckled. “I like you.”

“Good.” She smiled. “That’s good. I don’t have many friends. Most people think I’m . . . quirky.”

“Me too.”

Madison was a breath of fresh air. She reminded me of the way Elliott made me feel: relaxed and normal. He was right about introducing me to her, and I wondered if he knew me better than I knew myself.

Madison gasped and reached for the radio. She turned up the volume and bobbed her head. “Gah, I love this song.”

I smiled and sat back, closing my eyes. The music flowed through the speakers and into me. Madison’s buoyant mood was contagious, filling the car and making the corners of my mouth turn up. She began to giggle for no reason, so much that I did, too. Our giggling turned into a barrage of laughter, wheezing, and failed attempts to stop. Madison wiped away tears, her fingers and the windshield wipers working extra hard to help her see.

“What was that?” I asked, still chuckling.

“I don’t know,” she said. She held her breath, and a laugh escaped again, then we started all over.

After five minutes of uncontrollable laughter, Oklahoma City traffic converged, and Madison wiped her cheeks, concentrating on the road.

“I haven’t done that in a long time. Since I was little. It felt good but weird,” I said.

“Like you laughed so hard you felt like crying?”

I nodded.

“Oh my God! I thought that was just me. I feel exhausted after. Depressed almost.”

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